Although Dolley Madison liked to refer to herself as a “Virginian, born and bred”, she was actually born in North Carolina. In 1765, her father, John Payne was admitted to the Cedar Creek meeting, the local Society of Friends, or Quaker, congregation. It was not a quick decision; he had been married to Mary Coles for three years, and marriages with non-Quakers were frowned upon. But, when he did join he pursued it with the zeal of a new convert. Six months later, John and Mary took their young son Walter and moved to the wilds of North Carolina with a number of other Quaker families to begin a new settlement.
John Payne and Mary Coles were from two of the oldest families in Virginia. According to Allgor, they had the three most important things for Virginia gentry, “lineage, land, and the ownership of enslaved peoples.” (At the time, it wasn’t a requirement that Quakers free their slaves. Also, a 1723 law in Virginia required approval of the governor and council to manumit slaves.)
John sold all of his land holdings in Virginia and purchased land in North Carolina. He was referred to as a merchant, but there is no record of what he sold. However, the move must not have been a successful one. In 1769, he sold his North Carolina land at a loss and moved his family back to Virginia, this time with another son, William Temple, and their first daughter Dolley, born on May 20, 1768.
Once again in the Cedar Creek meeting, they were surrounded by friends and extended family. For the next fifteen years, the family farmed and expanded. Five more children followed Dolley: Isaac, Lucy, Anne, Mary Coles, and John Coles. Quakers believed in educating girls as well as boys, and although we don’t know specifics about Dolley’s education her writing indicates that she was well-educated for the time.
After the Revolutionary War and changes in the laws of the new state, John manumitted his slaves. Without them it was impossible to farm at the level he had, so he decided to move the family to Philadelphia in 1783. By this time, Dolley was a vivacious fifteen with black hair, blue eyes, and a winning smile. She made quite an impression on the young men in the Society of Friends in Philadelphia and in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of the oldest Quaker communities in the country.
John Payne did well initially, too. He became an elder and began to preach in meetings. He was strict and exacting in his faith, but his business skills were not any better than they were in North Carolina. By 1789, his business went under and he was read out of the Pine Street Meeting. Whether this was simply because failure in business indicated a weak character to the other Friends, or because of some shady business deals, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, depressed, John took to his bed.
Mary Payne was a woman of strong character and determination, and Dolley adored her. When she realized she could no longer depend on John to support the family, she opened her home to boarders. In 1791, the fledgeling government moved the capital to Philadelphia and Mary catered to congressmen. She earned a reputation for running a “good house” and by the time John died in Oct of 1792, she had a thriving business.
In spite of his strict religious views, John wasn’t able to completely control his oldest daughter. One of the women in their meeting recalled years later that Dolley was inappropriate in her choice of caps, gowns, and “the shape of her shoes.” However, he did impose his will on her in the choice of a husband.
John Todd was a successful attorney and a Quaker. He was tall and handsome, and apparently had not given up when Dolley originally turned him down. They were married on January 7, 1790, and even though he may not have been her first choice, they appear to have had a happy marriage. But, this happiness didn’t last long.
Dolley’s first son, John Payne Todd, was born on February 29,1792. He was healthy and happy and joined by a baby brother, William Temple Todd, in the summer of 1793. Sadly a yellow fever epidemic also reached Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. The symptoms of the disease are terrifying and the cause wouldn’t be known for another 100 years. The entire city was in a panic. (It would kill almost 10 percent of the population before winter came and it ended.)
In August, although Dolley had just given birth, John Todd sent her and the boys out of the city for their protection. Mary Payne went with them to care for them, but John had to return to the city. He had his parents to care for as well as clients, many of whom had legal matters to attend to because of deaths in the family.
For the Todd family, October was the fateful month. John nursed both of his parents and his law clerk, but to no avail. They all three died and Dolley was frantic for John’s safety. He finally agreed to close his law firm and join her. When he did, he stayed in another part of the house to avoid bringing the infection to the family. (Not knowing yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, they believed it was contagious.)
Ironically, after surviving his time in the city, John came down with the fever after spending the evening hunting in the marsh. In an effort to protect the family, he returned to the city. There he died on October 14, 1793, the same day the baby, William, died.
Dolley was bereft, but she was also out of money. Mary Payne had to write to Philadelphia to get money for William’s funeral and for the move home. Once they were back, she should have been fine, but there were complications. John had designated Dolley his executrix as well as leaving her “all his worldly goods.” Since John’s parents died before he did, she was also due his portion of their estate.
In a city with over 5000 deaths, the courts were overloaded, and even though John’s will was clear, his brother James, a bank clerk, wouldn’t hand over any of the money to Dolley. He wouldn’t even turn over copies of both of the wills or any of John’s other papers. When she pressed him, he suggested that she sell items from the house that were in her possession. She steadfastly refused to sell the library books! Finally, after numerous requests and demands, James settled out of court, but only after she got a lawyer.
Dolley was now a wealthy widow. At 25, she was tall, beautiful, and very eligible. Supposedly, men stood at the end of her street to get a glimpse of her. But this eligibility wouldn’t last. It wasn’t long before she caught the eye of, and was formally introduced to, in her words, the “great little Madison.”